In considering issues of political economy today, it is always prudent to refer to wisdom from the past. The American Enterprise Institute’s recent publication “Economic Freedom and Human Flourishing: Perspectives from Political Philosophy” is a collection of essays that analyzes the thought of several prominent philosophers on the connection between the title’s two subjects. Many of the quotes below, pulled from six of the nine essays, challenge foundational aspects of classical liberalism and the value of the free market. As Yuval Levin comments at the end of his essay on Edmund Burke, markets can enable human flourishing, but they do not do so perfectly, “And it is precisely the friends of markets who should be most willing to acknowledge that, and to seek for ways to address it…for the sake of liberty and human flourishing.” (more…)
In his new book, The Great Debate, Yuval Levin explores the birth of America’s Left and Right by contrasting the views of Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. I’ve written previously on his chapter on choice vs. obligation, and in a recent appearance on EconTalk, Levin joins economist Russell Roberts to discuss these tensions further, addressing the implications for libertarians and conservatives a bit more directly.
It should first be noted that Roberts and Levin offer a dream pairing when it comes to such discussions. Roberts, a self-professed libertarian and classical liberal, offers each guest a unique level of intellectual empathy, meeting even the most vigorous intellectual opponents at their best and brightest arguments (see his discussions with Jeffrey Sachs). Likewise, Levin, while a true-and-through conservative, is not prone to the variety of anti-libertarian caricatures that predominate the Right. If we hope to uncover the actual distinctions between the two, these men are up to the task, and the historical context makes it all the more meaty. Listen to the whole thing here.
About halfway through (36:39), Roberts asks Levin directly how a libertarian might discern between Burke and Paine, admitting sympathies for both sides. Levin answers with a lengthy response, noting, first, how libertarians typically take a more Burkean approach to centralized knowledge and power:
There is a strong and important strand of libertarianism that is very Burkean, because it emphasizes especially the limits of our knowledge and the kind of skepticism about the uses of power. And so ultimately believes that power needs to be restrained because there are permanent limits on what we can do…And it inclines many libertarians to market economics and to restraints on the role of government and the power of government. And in that sense aligns them with a lot of Conservatives who think more like Burke. (more…)
In his latest column for National Review, Jonah Goldberg notes the difference between being pro-business and pro-market and says the GOP can’t have it both ways anymore:
Just to clarify, the difference between being pro-business and pro-market is categorical. A politician who is a “friend of business” is exactly that, a guy who does favors for his friends. A politician who is pro-market is a referee who will refuse to help protect his friends (or anyone else) from competition unless the competitors have broken the rules. The friend of business supports industry-specific or even business-specific loans, grants, tariffs, or tax breaks. The pro-market referee opposes special treatment for anyone.
Politically, the reason the lines get blurry in good times and bad is that in a boom, the economic pie is growing fast enough that the friend and his competitor alike can prosper. In bad times, when politicians are desperate to get the economy going, no one in Washington wants to seem like an enemy of the “job creators.”
Goldberg is absolutely right about the difference being categorical. As economist Arnold Kling has helpfully outlined, support/opposition to markets and business gives us four categories:
Over at Fieldnotes Magazine, Matthew Kaemingk offers a good reminder that in our social solutions-seeking we needn’t be limited to thinking only in terms of market and state. By boxing ourselves in as such, Kaemingk argues, Christians risk an overly simplistic, non-Biblical view of human needs and human destiny:
When presented with almost any social problem (education, health care, poverty, family life, and so on), today’s leaders typically point to one of two possible solutions—a freer market or a stronger state. But in opposition to these rather myopic solutions, I think there is a more complex and biblical lens through which leaders can consider the social eco-system and the people who move around in it.
Instead of simplistic descriptions of human beings as either clients of the state or competitors in the market, the Christian Scriptures present humanity in a refreshingly complex way. We find a complex creature with a wide variety of gifts, abilities, interests, aspects, loyalties, and solidarities. Created in the image of God, human beings in the Bible are anything but simple. They are musical, communal, religious, artistic, familial, charitable, scientific, literary, moral, athletic, fun, and funny. The robust anthropology found in the Bible depicts a creature that could never be fully defined, controlled, content, or nourished by the market or the state alone—thank God.
This perspective ties in well with Rev. Robert Sirico’s final chapter in his book, Defending the Free Market, where he criticizes the popular notion of homo economicus, from which plenty of bad economic policy and market decision-making has been generated:
Any man who was only economic man would be a lost soul. And any civilization that produced only homines economici to fill its markets, courts, legislative bodies, and other institutions would soon enough be a lost civilization. Familial love, voluntary dedication to philanthropy and faith, the creation of art and music would be at their most minimal level, and whole sectors of life would completely vanish. Focusing the whole of life on the acquisition of quantifiable goods does not bring true happiness or peace, as almost everyone knows. We all have material appetites, but we do not (pray God) always feed them…Human beings find ultimate fulfillment not in acquisition but in developing, sharing, and using their God-given creative capacities for good and giving themselves to others. (more…)